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Fairly confused / February 07, 2013
For their next act, members of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors should work up a request-for-proposal for the perfect crime.

Specs must include: No fingerprints. No evidence of the perpetrators of the deed. As a matter of fact, no one should have any clue at all.

Cost: $45,000, for a study that can be quickly disavowed or revised as needed.

Project focus: the Halifax County Fairgrounds. And, by the way, just kidding about the “focus” part.

Poor supervisors. Ever since shelling out $3.5 million to acquire the fairgrounds and adjoining tracts, they’ve fumbled around mightily trying to figure out what to do with their acquisition. To their credit, the supervisors used the purchase as a steppingstone for saving the county fair, a commendable goal. But at a cost of $3.5 million? That’s a whole lot of cotton candy.

The ostensible reason for buying the fairgrounds was to give Halifax County a large, readily accessible site it could develop and put on the market. Problem is, for what? Never having quite figured this one out, last fall the supervisors authorized a master plan — half a decade after the land purchase — to plumb the best and most feasible uses of the fairgrounds. Better late than never, as they say.

The result has turned out like one of those bad movie plots where the cat thief steals the priceless diamond, substitutes a fake so no one will suspect anything is wrong until it’s too late, and once the crime is discovered, everyone stands around wondering how such a catastrophe could have ever occurred. In this case, the supervisors received the master plan back from their consulting firm, Dewberry, and instead of gleaning ideas for transforming the site to attract something akin to the Microsoft data campus in Boydton, the Board got stuck with an $18 million plan for ginning up business in wedding receptions, truck pulls and big tomato competitions.

Thief! Thief!

And the perfect crime part? That would be the supervisors’ appalled reaction to their own study — who ordered this piece of junk? — as expressed so succinctly by J.T. Davis: “It came as a total shock to me. I thought we wanted the plan to show how we could use the property for economic development.” I thought the same thing. But in fairness to me, I’m not a member of the board that authorized and paid for the master plan and presumably had oversight of it. I am embarrassed and ashamed to say that I once fell asleep behind the wheel of a moving automobile, so there is that.

On Monday, the still-new county administrator, Jim Halasz, stepped forward to take the blame, ‘fessing up that it was he who suggested that Dewberry go ahead and develop the master plan along the lines suggested by an advisory committee formed from such entities as the tourism and ag departments, South Boston Speedway and the Heritage Festival. The result, as we now all know, was a blueprint for $18 million in site improvements to give Halifax County a first-rate entertainment, festival and outdoor sporting event venue. (Imagine that.) The supervisors’ desire to incorporate outside viewpoints is commendable, but they might have done well to appoint an additional member to contextualize the various proposals against a backdrop of up to $1 million in annual interest on an investment of $18 million. Requiring that dollar figures be included in the conversation might’ve sharpened the thought process.

Presumably chagrined by the supes’ initial reaction to the master plan, Dewberry returned to the Board meeting on Monday night and presented versions B, C and D. (The episode calls to mind Groucho Marx’s priceless line: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.”) These iterations include various options for carving up the property, with some areas set aside for economic development purposes, and other parts reserved to host the fair and other such events. All this is fine so far as it goes. But the Dewberry study did not, and cannot, address the core question that the supervisors themselves have never quite answered: Why exactly did Halifax County buy the fairgrounds to begin with?

The justification given at the time of purchase was that the county needed a large site to market to industries that might not be an especially good fit for Riverstone. This was reasonable at the time: The county had precious few ready-to-order industrial sites with four-lane highway access to show off to prospective manufacturers. (This deficiency has eased somewhat over time even if one doesn’t count the fairgrounds site, although the IDA still isn’t exactly swimming with major marketable tracts aside from Riverstone). Three years ago, Halifax was reportedly in the running along with neighboring Mecklenburg for an Apple Computer data center that ended up going to North Carolina. The fairgrounds was said to be our showcase property, despite lacking essentials such as industrial-grade water and sewer capacity. In truth, North Carolina had the edge all long on the Apple project, thanks to generous tax giveaways — a topic for a different day.

One imagines that if another Apple or Microsoft came along, the Board of Supervisors would kick various fairground users to the curb faster than you can say “cinnamon bun truck.” In the abstract, however, the supes keep trying to have it every which way: They talk a good game on the importance of economic development, then do stuff like build the county waste transfer station next to the site. It really is quite remarkable, and dismaying, that the supervisors would now be entertaining a suggestion by Dewberry (admittedly unlikely to be taken up) to relocate the transfer station, at a cost of $2 million-plus, so as to make the fairgrounds more palatable for economic development purposes. The transfer station was built only a few short years ago. And we’re reconsidering the wisdom of it now?

By stepping in to save the county fair, the supervisors preserved a part of our heritage that would be appropriately mourned if it were allowed to die. I get that. But sentimentality doesn’t tend to work well in the hard-headed business of land development. The supervisors have talked in the past about how the fairgrounds site could accommodate both business and festivals, which indeed might be possible. But you’ll never get the likes of an Apple to bite at such a prospect. At best, lesser companies might be coaxed into accepting an uneasy co-existence, although it’s doubtful. At the same time, going in the other direction — duding up the fairgrounds with a multi-million dollar steroid injection of pavilions and exhibit halls and an auto museum and all the rest — has been rightly rejected by the supervisors (upon second glance) as unrealistic.

Truth is, the best play for the fairgrounds might be to do only slightly more than nothing. The supervisors are considering going forward with a $1.2 million water and sewer upgrade, a prerequisite before anything meaningful can proceed at the site, and this sounds like a reasonable plan as long as someone else pays it. At some point, though, the Board has to come to grips with the fact that the fairgrounds isn’t a piece of property onto which one can project any and every possible use. It would be like that old “Saturday Night Live” skit when the characters argued over whether the aerosol can contained floor wax or dessert topping or both. In real life, choices are unavoidable. Having preserved the county fair for posterity, will the supervisors be prepared one day to let it go?

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